Many Islanders were both surprised and disappointed when Chef Michael Smith – PEI’s “Food Ambassador” – endorsed Genetically-modified food at the first of five public consultations on Canada’s Food Policy held recently in Charlottetown. The only reason he gave was his apparent belief that without GMOs we will not be able to produce enough food to feed the world’s steadily-increasing population. As he put it: “We need to be able to feed 10 billion people on this planet by 2050….we need that tool [GMOs] in our toolkit.”
How did Smith come to believe that we won’t be able to produce enough food without GMOs? No doubt, from hearing it repeated ad naseum by legions of GMO supporters with whom he’s obviously been associating.
I’m hoping he will do some further research and discover that the oft-repeated claim that GMOs are the only way to produce enough food to prevent mass starvation is entirely groundless. I’m also counting on him having an open mind and – after considering the arguments and scientific sources for the information in this article – will retract his endorsement for GMOs.
A good place to start is a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically-Engineered Crops, which found that “No currently available GE varieties enhance the intrinsic yield of any crops. The intrinsic yields of corn and soybeans did rise during the twentieth century, but not as a result of GE traits. Rather, they were due to successes in traditional breeding.”
Another study worth reviewing is a report by the US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) Feeding the World. As the authors note:
“The ‘moral imperative’ to feed the world has become an important rationale for maintaining the status quo in U.S. farm policy. It has also been deployed to deflect attention from the damage that ‘modern’ agriculture does to the environment and human health, and to discredit calls for reform.”
The EWG study further notes: “Less than 1 percent of America’s agricultural exports go to the 19 countries with the highest levels of undernourishment,” which shows that the current US food system, which is predominantly owned and controlled by a handful of transnational corporations, is clearly not set up to address the issue of global hunger now, to say nothing for how it would feed an even larger population in 2050. It’s designed to produce cheap commodities for export to countries who can pay for them so that food corporations (and their shareholders) can increase their wealth… not channel food to starving people. As the EWG study concludes regarding how the United States can best help poor nations: “The most important roles the United States can play are in helping them do a better job of feeding themselves and ensuring that their farmers make a good living.” This is also good advice for Canada.
The question of whether GMOs might be created to increase crop yields is not the most important food issue: the real food challenge facing the world today and into the future is the urgent need to replace the global corporate food system – which has “commodified” an essential and basic human right (a food system which GMOs now constitute an intrinsic and indispensable part) with an entirely new system based on different and morally superior principles and objectives. The key question that will determine whether we can feed the world today and into the future is “who will own and control seeds, food production, food processing, food distribution, food retailing, food science, etc.?”
As the Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (José Graziano da Silva) bravely stated at the International Forum on Agriculture and Climate Change in Paris on February 20, 2015:
“The model of agricultural production that predominates today is not suitable for the new food security challenges of the 21st century….Increasing production has long been seen as the natural pathway to ending hunger – but today, even though the world produces enough food to feed everyone, hunger remains a problem….Since food production is not a sufficient condition for food security, it means that the way we are producing is no longer acceptable….What we are still mostly seeing is a model of production that cannot prevent the degradation of soils and the loss of biodiversity – both of which are essential goods, especially for future generations. This model must be reviewed. We need a paradigm shift. Food systems need to be more sustainable, inclusive and resilient.”
GMOs promote monocultural farming, which destroys biodiversity and (equally as important) genetic diversity; which is probably the greatest single threat to food security in the future (remember the Irish potato famine?) It’s foolhardy to put all our food in one DNA basket, but that’s exactly what’s happened as a result of GMOs. By allowing our future food security to remain in the hands of Transnational corporations who hold legal, proprietary ownership and control over seeds which destroy genetic diversity by promoting just a few crops expressing only the characteristics they want….well, that’s a recipe for a disaster of biblical proportions! And few people understand just how vertically-integrated and consolidated that ownership now is.
The top 3 seed companies in the world (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) together account for $10,282 million, or 47% of the worldwide proprietary seed market. The ETC Group conservatively estimates that the same three seed companies control 65% of the proprietary maize seed market worldwide, and over half of the proprietary soybean seed market.
But let’s get back to Chef Michael Smith’s endorsement of GMOs. I think that he has actually been a pretty decent Food Ambassador for PEI. He’s obviously proud of PEI, and seems entirely sincere about promoting healthy lifestyles and diets. I’m especially impressed with his unequivocal condemnation of processed foods (which, like GMOs, are now mostly owned and controlled by large corporations). So I don’t believe for a second that he “sold out” and abandoned his principles in endorsing GMOs. Frankly, he doesn’t need the money: various websites which track celebrities concur that his net worth is around $30 million. No, I believe Chef Smith sincerely believes that GMOs are the only way to feed the world, especially into the future, and if that claim was actually true, well how could he not feel morally compelled to endorse them?
Yet – and this is the somewhat “baffling” part of his endorsement of GMOs – when he’s wearing his Food Ambassador hat and expressing concern about people starving, believing GMOs will eventually fix that problem, he confidently endorses GMOs. But deep down, I think he knows there’s something better. Why? Because when he’s wearing his Chef’s hat in the kitchen, he clearly wants us to know that if we eat his food it will be certified organic and non-GMO (Note: genetically-engineered foods cannot be certified organic in Canada).
Smith’s Inn at Bay Fortune website offers a detailed description of the “Feast” his restaurant offers, and salmon is on the menu: “Wander into the Fire Kitchen and try a slab of hot-smoked salmon prepared in our smokehouse…” it states. So given that Chef Smith always prefers to source his food locally if possible, to support the local economy and ensure maximum freshness, and given that he has now publicly-endorsed GM food, and given that genetically-engineered salmon has been approved for consumption in Canada, I figured his salmon would come from Aquabounty, so I called and asked. Nope! Despite the fact that Aquabounty is literally next door to Smith’s Inn – and just two doors down from Smith’s private residence – he has opted rather to source non-GMO salmon from Ocean Blue in Nova Scotia. And since Chef Michael Smith has – to his credit – indicated that he believes consumers should know if the food they buy and eat is GMO, I suspect if he ever begins serving Aquabounty GE Salmon he will let us know.
And as for his veggies: Again, from his Inn at Bay Fortune Website:
“Our Farm: Every day our love of organic [aka “Non-GMO” ] farming nourishes our soil, fills our harvest baskets and inspires our menu. We’re proud of the tireless efforts of our Brigade harvesting more than 200 different fruits and vegetables we produce every year. We grow 100% of the vegetables we serve including our amazing house salad. Every night it features more than 50 different organic [Non-GMO] greens, tender shoots, leaves, herbs and flowers!”
Another reason I believe Chef Smith simply hasn’t done enough research and thinking about his endorsement of GM food is because his support of GMOs is inconsistent with, and undermines, several strong positions he has taken on other food-related issues. For example, Smith obviously supports eating healthy food, but GM crops are grown from seeds which are owned by some of the largest chemical companies in the world, and those seeds have not been altered to produce higher yields (if that’s even possible) but have been genetically-engineered to either produce a poison within the cells of the plant (as a result of the insertion of genes from a bacteria) and/or have [and yes, some crops have both genetic changes] been altered to tolerate the application of poisons produced and sold by those same companies.
Monsanto, for example, has modified a number of crops to tolerate it’s herbicide “Roundup” (containing glyphosate), which has, according to reputable scientific studies, led to a significant increase in pesticide usage. According to a study using USDA and EPA data, the adoption of genetically-engineered crops by farmers has increased herbicide use over the past 9 years from the time of the study [from 2004-2013] in the U.S. The report follows a study by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook which came to the same conclusion.
The presence of glyphosate is now omnipresent in our environment and food. Canada’s food regulator, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently found glyphosate in nearly 30 per cent of about 3,200 food products it tested. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. refuses to test for glyphosate, a recent report (Glyphosate: Unsafe on Any Plate) reported the results of independent tests of foods that were tested for the presence of Glyphosate, undertaken in a FDA-approved lab, and revealed the shocking extent of the problem:
New scientific evidence shows that probable harm to human health could begin at ultra-low levels of glyphosate e.g. 0.1 parts per billions (ppb). Popular foods tested for glyphosate measured between 289.47 ppb and at levels as high as 1,125.3 ppb
Widespread use of pesticide-tolerant GM crops has also resulted in the creation of “superweeds” which are now tolerant to those same herbicides. The University of Nebraska discusses this growing problem in it’s CropWatch article, Multiple Herbicide-Resistant Weeds and Challenges Ahead:
After commercialization of glyphosate-tolerant soybean in 1996 and corn in 1997, glyphosate has been used extensively for weed control. In fact, multiple times in a year. This resulted in the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. By 2014, 29 weed species have evolved resistance to glyphosate worldwide.
As herbicide-resistant superweeds threaten to overgrow farm fields, agriculture companies have genetically-engineered a whole new generation of plants to withstand heavy doses of multiple, extra-toxic weed-killing chemicals. What will come next…once those weeds develop tolerance to them? When will we admit that poisons strong enough to kill superweeds are too toxic for safe use?
Jane Goodale once asked: “How can we believe it is a good idea to grow our food with poison?” Well, Chef Michael Smith, when you endorse GMOs, that’s exactly what you are asking us to believe. Again, I don’t think you fully realize that’s what you are doing, otherwise you wouldn’t have endorsed GMOs, because I am sure you are sincerely interested in promoting healthy food production and consumption. But that’s not what GMOs are giving us!
Given that the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans” and California has just listed glyphosate as cancer-causing, can you just imagine what those “extra-toxic weed-killing chemicals” coming on stream will do to our environment and health? Chemicals such as 2,4-D:
Despite concerns about potential health risks, in 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the combined use of 2,4-D and the popular weed killer Roundup (also known as glyphosate, a whole other—and in many ways more worrying—story when it comes to health and the environment). Enlist Duo, as the combo is called, was already legal in several states. It is used mainly on big farms, where it is sprayed on genetically modified crops called Enlist soy and Enlist corn that have been engineered to be resistant to the poisons. [Source]
Chef Michael Smith is calling for a tax on processed foods, stating in the most forceful way possible that: “This processed food experiment is done and over…It’s killing Canadians.” (CBC Article), but does he not realize that GM crops are largely responsible for producing the main ingredients used in those highly-processed foods (Canola Oil; GM Corn; GM sugar Beets; etc.) all grown using industrial agriculture to fuel factories owned by Transnational Food Corporations like Nestle, General Mills, etc.? If Chef Smith really believes that “All the leading causes (of death) are directly related to food, to processed food. Salt, sugar….” as I’m sure he does, and if he wants us to take his warning seriously to avoid “sugar-laden breakfast cereals” [mostly made from GM corn], and to “…use natural animal fats like butter and lard, which have been ‘demonized for far too long,’ instead of vegetable oils that have been heated and processed into shortening or margarine,” [most of which is made from oil derived from GM crops, mainly Canola] then why the heck is he endorsing GMOs?
Chef Smith also recommends stocking the kitchen with superfoods — kale, spinach, root vegetables, ancient grains, legumes, nuts, seeds like quinoa and chia, yogurt, eggs and fruits – foods that are (except for a couple of varieties of fruit) all non-GMO, so again, does he not see the fundamental contradiction in his endorsement of GMOs?
Smith says we need GMOs to supply a growing global population with food, but that is completely erroneous – GMOs have increased neither crop yields nor food security….food security requires biodiversity and genetic diversity, but GM seeds and crops are all about monoculture and DNA uniformity…and are highly vulnerable to being wiped out on a mass scale from the spread of one deadly pathogen and disease. There are so many excellent resources and scientific studies that demonstrate and explain this simple truth, such as “Linking agricultural biodiversity and food security: the valuable role of agro-biodiversity for sustainable agriculture.”
To endorse GMOs is to promote a corporate system of monocultural agriculture at a time when the world desperately needs to return to a simple, natural and organic way to grow healthy food that we – as small local communities, not transnational corporations – own and control. Chef Smith is bang-on in decrying processed foods and encouraging us to eat more fruits and vegetables, etc., but it remains baffling how he fails to see how his support for GMOs totally undermines and negates those laudable food policy goals. We don’t need GMOs as another tool in our toolkit; we need a new toolkit!